FORT STEWART, Georgia – An Army sergeant was found guilty on Wednesday of two counts of premeditated murder in the 2008 slayings of his squad leader and another U.S. soldier at a patrol base in Iraq, but he was spared the death penalty when the military jury didn't return a unanimous verdict.
Sgt. Joseph Bozicevich of Minneapolis now faces a sentence of life in prison, either with or without the possibility of parole. The death penalty is an option in a court martial only when there's a unanimous guilty verdict for premeditated murder. The 12-member jury at Fort Stewart did not report exactly how it was split when it announced its verdict.
Bozicevich, 41, admitted during the trial that he shot Staff Sgt. Darris Dawson of Pensacola, Fla., and Sgt. Wesley Durbin of Dallas at a patrol base outside Baghdad on September 14, 2008, after they criticized him for making mistakes in an unforgiving war zone. But he testified that he only opened fire because the two soldiers aimed rifles at his head and threatened to kill him if he didn't sign off on their written reports about him.
Prosecutors insisted that he grabbed his gun in anger after the men wounded his pride, when Dawson decided to strip the soldier of his leadership role of a four-man squad because of a series of battlefield blunders. Prosecutor Maj. Scott Ford told jurors Tuesday that Bozicevich snapped after that "final blow to his ego."
Bozicevich sat quietly and showed no emotion as the verdict was read. Once the judge, jurors, and the defense team cleared the courtroom, relatives and friends of the victims burst into cheers. Durbin's mother collapsed in relief in her chair, hardened soldiers wept with joy and the victims' families greeted prosecutors and even the security guard standing outside the courtroom with praise and hugs.
"My husband can rest in peace now," said Brandi Durbin as she prepared to share the news with relatives. "I've got to calm down a bit, because if I don't, they'll think it's bad news."
A sentencing hearing is set to begin Thursday, and jurors will have to decide whether Bozicevich should be sentenced to life in prison with parole or without parole. Still, the victims' families seemed content that Bozicevich will likely face decades behind bars.
"I'm just glad we finally got justice," said Latasha Dawson, Darris' wife. "It's been a long two and a half years. Life in prison is fine — as long as he never gets out."
Durbin, of Dallas, was found shot seven times in a corner of the base's small communications station, where Bozicevich had been on duty. Dawson, 24, of Pensacola, Fla., fell in the dirt outside with six bullets in his back and another lodged in the rifle slung over his shoulder. Several witnesses said they saw Bozicevich chasing Dawson while firing at him, including two final shots while he stood directly over Dawson.
While several soldiers testified to hearing gunshots in the night and witnessing the aftermath — including Bozicevich screaming "Kill me!" as he was pinned to the ground — the accused soldier was the only survivor of the confrontation with Dawson and Durbin.
His defense attorney, Charles Gittins, urged jurors to give more weight to Bozicevich's story that Dawson and Durbin aimed rifles at his head. He said he disarmed them using martial arts moves and managed to grab his own rifle before bolting from the room and scuffling with Dawson outside. Bozicevich said he fired his gun blindly in hopes of getting clear: "I sprayed and I prayed."
"Sgt. Bozicevich, with no history of violence, was trying to do a good job," Gittins said. "He was scared. He was in fear for his life, and he acted accordingly."
But prosecutors said Bozicevich erupted after the two criticized him for a disastrous series of mistakes, including making a wrong turn during a patrol in Iraq and later leaving behind a squad member. They say Dawson's decision to strip Bozicevich of his leadership role and give the job to Durbin, who was 13 years younger than Bozicevich, was the final straw.
"This is a man who thinks he's better than anyone around him. And anytime he fails, it's someone else's fault. After he kills two fellow soldiers in a cold, calculating way, he tells you it's their fault."
The victims' families said they were glad this phase of the court-martial trial is over, after years of court motions and more than a month at trial. Carole Durbin, who is Wesley's mother, wept with other family members and clutched several members of the prosecuting team after the verdict was read.
"I'm just grateful my son's name is cleared, that his name is rightfully cleared," she said. "He didn't deserve to have his name smeared like that."
Associated Press Military Writer Russ Bynum in Savannah, Ga. contributed to this report. Bluestein can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/bluestein